By Carol A.O. Wolf
When the news of a possible cheating scandal on the Standards of Learning tests (SOLs) at Richmond's Carver Elementary first leaked, it was a heartbreaker.
Everyone had cheered for the students of the scrappy school in one of the poorest parts of the city that managed to have high test scores. Here was evidence, we hoped, that poverty didn't define destiny.
Many Richmonders felt like the young fan back in 1919, who, upon learning the World Series might have been fixed, famously implored his hero "Shoeless" Joe Jackson: "Say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so."
Still, I must confess that I had wondered about the soaring SOL scores not just at Carver, but in many of our city's elementary schools, especially given the dismal academic performance of most of our city's middle schools.
Sadly, according to multiple sources, it is now a safe bet that Carver's principal, Kiwana Yates, and as many as eight teachers implicated in the cheating investigation by the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), will soon need to seek employment elsewhere. Whether any will lose their teaching licenses or superintendent credentials remains up to the State. Under Virginia law, teachers, and administrators who contribute to institutional cheating can lose their licenses or face civil penalties of (only) $1,000 per violation. Too bad they can’t be sent to jail.
While the final VDOE report has not yet been released, it is expected to detail how the school's teachers who served as test administrators circulated around the room making sure individual students had answered all questions. As they looked at the answers, they would either smile real big or frown real big. They never said a word. Their facial cues told the students whether their answers were correct or incorrect.
When asked later to distinguish the difference in the way the school's test administrators behaved compared to other administrators, the kids innocently noted the exaggerated smiling and frowning. As one child told her grandmother, who in turn told me: "Those other people didn't smile near as much."
Whether for greed or glory, or a lack of faith in their own abilities as teachers, the adults involved in this mess engaged in child abuse of the most cynical and corrupt kind. Additionally, a close examination of the remarkable pass rates at Carver shows that both the able and disabled groups outscored the state average for able students. In recent years and that these scores at Carver have been almost identical.
Bad enough that they chose to cheat and compromise their own integrity by lying to the world about the test results. They lied to these kids. They lied to their families.
Worse, their actions sent a message that they didn't think the kids could master the test without cheating. It is a message that undoubtedly hurt the kids’ faith and trust in both themselves and in the adults. Just as surely as the results of physical abuse remain long after bruises fade and bones heal, the results of this kind of abuse will persist for years to come.
What is particularly unforgivable here is that they pumped the students up to believe they had aced their SOLs and sent them from elementary school to middle school unprepared for the academic challenges ahead. Far from helping kids succeed, they set them up for long-term failure.
No one can convince me that the dismal academic conditions in our middle schools that in recent years--have posted single-digit pass rates in math and science were not made worse by these actions.
We know that the standardized testing created high hurdles, imposed draconian consequences for not clearing them and then offered no tools to school systems to succeed. It is, however, not an acceptable response to make liars of schools administrators at all levels, to manipulate some children with exaggerated smiles and frowns, to falsely brand other children as disabled to improve a school’s pass rate. These actions deprive school systems of the usefulness of true measures of performance and waste valuable resources of public schools.
Regardless of one’s view about high stakes testing, the correct answer is not for teachers and principals to devise ways to cheat. Every profession has examinations and since schools began students have had to take tests to determine how well they are mastering the materials. If educators object to the testing, they need to convince us that the tests are counterproductive rather than valid educational tools for students and teachers.
One thing is not debatable. In these fearful times, when our children confront trauma in their daily lives and see politicians and their supporters twist facts and excuse all manner of unacceptable conduct, society faces a high stakes test to teach the next generation what honesty is and why it is important.
Let us hope Richmond's new School Superintendent, Jason Kamras, has the will to deliver this lesson.
* An earlier version of this appeared in the July 10, 2018 issue of Style Weekly, without the links to data and charts provided by John R. Butcher over at Cranky's Blog. Many thanks to John and all the people at Style who helped make this commentary possible. ~ CW